By Ian Wilson
Back in October, the National Assembly in Quebec passed Bill 62, which requires that government employees and public servants “demonstrate religious neutrality,” and that they must “neither favour nor hinder a person because of the person’s religious affiliation or non-affiliation.” The government plans to ensure such neutrality by outlawing face coverings for its workers, and by outlawing face coverings for any person receiving public services from the government. The bill addresses other matters as well, such as religious education at daycares, but its primary concern is face covering.
There are many issues to consider here, not the least of which is the definition of “religious neutrality,” and whether such a thing is even possible. The bill itself suggests that it may not be—it allows for special accommodations and makes concessions for the “emblematic and toponymic elements” (that is, the important symbols and meaningful places) of Quebec’s own “religious cultural heritage.” But the issue I’d like to address is the bill’s assumption that face-covering necessarily has something to do with religion and religion alone.
The bill does not specify any types or styles of coverings—it simply outlaws covering one’s face. There’s some irony in the bill’s failure to specify. Like Alberta, Quebec is cold, sometimes very cold, and a good face covering is often necessary. Quebec residents opposed to the bill immediately picked up on this irony, protesting the new law by boarding public transit while wearing balaclavas. The bill does grant that individuals may cover their faces on account of particular “working conditions”—conditions like, I assume, working outside during the Quebec winter—but the bill’s lack of specificity nonetheless raises the question of what exactly constitutes a “religious” covering as opposed to a non-religious one.
Of course, for those familiar with Quebec’s legal history, including the ill-fated attempt to implement a “Charter of Values” in 2013, the bill’s emphasis on face covering comes as no surprise. Bill 62’s obvious intent is to outlaw the coverings worn by some Muslim women, even though it makes no mention of Islam whatsoever. This perceived legal targeting of Muslims comes at a time when racism and hate crimes towards them are on the rise in Quebec, and there has been little interest in attempting to understand the reasons why Muslim women cover their face.
When a Muslim woman covers her face—or any portion of her head—it’s important not to assume that the covering is primarily a religious act, even in the context of a devout Islamic community. The Quran rarely addresses clothing at all, and when it does it generally exhorts women and men to be modest in their dress. In the one passage that provides some detailed instruction concerning clothing, the text urges women to cover their chests and advises that women should not reveal anything “beyond what is acceptable to reveal” (24:31). What might be acceptable is never really clarified. Outside the Quran, a number of authoritative ahadith (prophetic traditions) promote covering the head, but covering the face is a long-standing point of debate in the history of interpretation.
Islamic tradition being not entirely clear on these issues, it’s not surprising that ethnographic research shows that Muslim women cover for all sorts of reasons. To be sure, many women directly relate their coverage to their practice of Islam and their religious convictions, and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms ensures that they may do so. Bill 62 already—and rightly—faces constitutional challenges on religious grounds. Numerous Muslim women, though, do not associate covering with Islamic practice per se.
Reasons cited frequently include non-Islamic customs and traditions, personal aesthetic preferences, marking and maintaining cultural identity, and simply not having to worry about hairstyling and makeup. Many of the common justifications for covering are not “religious,” at least not in the way our society tends to talk about religion. It’s widely recognized in Canada that visibly wearing a cross, for example, is not necessarily a religious statement, even though it can be. We should also recognize that covering one’s head or face is not always and only about religion, even when it might seem otherwise.